Of the four Laura Ingalls Wilder home sites we visited, De Smet, South Dakota was the one where we spent the most time, saw the most sights, and had the most fun. It’s the setting of five of her books (By the Shores of Silver Lake, Little Town on the Prairie, The Long Winter, These Happy Golden Years, and The First Four Years), and the place where she lived longer than anywhere besides Mansfield, Missouri (where she and Almanzo settled and lived for most of their married life).
We arrived in De Smet on a Sunday afternoon, and decided to begin our De Smet visit with the Historic Homes Tour presented by the Laura Ingalls Wilder Memorial Society. I bought the tickets ($10 for adults, $5 for children 6+), while Hannah changed into her Laura dress in the camper. The guided tour began right outside the gift shop, with historical buildings that have been moved from their original locations to the Memorial Society’s lot near the edge of town.
The first stop on the tour was the Surveyor’s House, the Ingalls family’s home in By the Shores of Silver Lake. It’s set up just the way Laura described it in the book, with supplies in the pantry, Ma and Pa’s room downstairs, and the girls’ room upstairs. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside due to copyright issues, but take my word for it–it was like stepping into the pages of the book.
The next stop was the actual schoolhouse where Laura and her sisters attended in De Smet. As part of the restoration, they discovered areas of original blackboard and wainscoting dating back to Laura’s day. They left sections of this “original” schoolhouse, and restored the rest to look like it once might have. Also in this schoolhouse were schoolbooks owned by the Ingalls girls, and photographs of the girls and their classmates.
A replica of the Brewster School, Laura’s first teaching assignment, sits next door. This gives an example of the converted claim shanty on the prairie where Laura taught her small class of children.
The tour then continued into town (passing the Loftus Store–it’s still there!) to the “House that Pa Built,” the home where Laura’s parents and sisters lived in town after she had married Almanzo. Although Laura never lived in the home, it was interesting to hear how Charles Ingalls built it, to see Ma’s and Laura’s actual dishes in the kitchen, and to see the parlor restored to match a photograph taken by Grace Ingalls of her mother sitting in the same room. We saw Mary’s raised-letter Bible (which she needed after she lost her sight), and saw artifacts belonging to the Ingalls sisters and their parents. Photographs weren’t permitted inside this home either, but there was plenty of interest to see there.
After a quick stop back at the Memorial Society to see the Discover Laura center (and a nearby playground for the boys), we headed a few miles outside of town to the cemetery to see the Ingalls family’s grave sites. Laura’s sisters and parents are buried there, along with her infant son. (Laura, Almanzo, and their daughter Rose are buried in Mansfield, Missouri.) Pa’s headstone is the only original one remaining, and there are several other familiar names from the books in the cemetery.
Our home for the night was Laura’s former homestead, just south of town. The Ingalls Homestead has four water & electric RV sites, along with tent campsites, a “bunkhouse,” and (my favorite) several “covered wagon” sleeping units, which looked like so much fun. It was $30 per night for RV camping, and admission to the Homestead is $10 per person (ages 6+). Overall, De Smet was more expensive than any of the other Ingalls home sites, but worth every penny. For all we saw and did, I still considered it to be a pretty “Shoestring Budget” destination, especially since the youngest two kids were free for everything we did.
After getting the camper parked, we headed to the nearby field for the final performance of the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant, an annual outdoor performance of one of Laura’s books presented by the Memorial Society for three weekends each summer. This summer’s show was Little Town on the Prairie, and we were pleasantly surprised to see that Laura was played by our tour guide from earlier in the day! The two kids that joined me (Hannah and her four-year-old brother Andrew) absolutely loved the show, especially meeting the cast afterward.
The highlight of the show for me was when Laura described the sunset to Mary as the sun was actually setting over Laura’s prairie. As the actress spoke, it occurred to me that the two sisters had probably had that conversation for real in nearly the same place, watching a similar sunset, over 130 years ago. Goosebumps–seriously!
The following morning, we woke up ready to explore the Homestead. This is the actual land settled by Charles Ingalls in 1880, and now it’s a living-history experience for Laura fans of all ages. I can’t say enough about the wonderful people there who helped make the experience memorable for the kids. At each location throughout the homestead, they guided the children (and adults) through experiences that helped them understand what life was like homesteading on the prairie in the late 19th century.
In the replica of Ma’s Little House, the fantastic interpreter shared about how the original house was built (and added on to), and helped the children make pioneer toys, try out the pump organ and sewing machine, and their favorite: washing, wringing, and hanging out the laundry.
The kids were allowed to “help” drive the horses (named Sam and David, of course) on the covered wagon ride through the Big Slough (yes, that Big Slough!) out to the schoolhouse. The “teacher” who met us there led the children through lessons to help them learn more about life in the late 1800s.
Hannah was asked to read a riddle to the class from the old reader, and she also helped demonstrate pioneer discipline by putting her nose on an X on the blackboard, just like in the books! They also had a math lesson and mini-spelling bee before heading back to the homestead.
Other activities that the kids enjoyed included making corn cob dolls like Laura’s “Susan” from the books (or corn cob superheroes for the boys), making their own rope, learning how to twist hay like they did in The Long Winter, and grinding seed wheat in a coffee mill to make flour. They loved seeing the animals (including “Bright” the calf) in the replica of Pa’s hay-roof barn, as well as pumping water from the well pump. It was also fun to check out the replica dugout home and claim shanty to see how many settlers lived when they first began the homesteading process.
We learned so much in a short visit, and all four kids loved the experience. One of my favorite moments (pictured at the top) was seeing Hannah in her prairie girl dress, just standing at the top of a hill on the homestead and surveying her surroundings before skipping down the hill, her bonnet trailing down her back in much the same way Laura’s might have in that very same place, so many years ago.
All four of the home sites we visited were amazing, and it was such a perfect time in my daughter’s life to visit them. As a life-long fan myself, I loved seeing them too! It’s pretty rare to get an opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a favorite character, and we were blessed to do it in four different locations scattered all over the country. The book The Little House Guidebook by William Anderson proved to be particularly helpful with planning this trip, and is a great read with lots of photos and details for all the home sites, even if you don’t plan on visiting them in person. Thanks for joining us as we walked in Laura’s footsteps at her Little Houses. Don’t forget to pin this series to your Pinterest travel board if you’d like to do the same some day!
Don’t miss the other posts in this series: